A Crisis of Conservatism - Lost Identity
The Conservative Party have lost sight of their identity. In all political systems where one party essentially monopolises an entire wing of the political spectrum, there is always a fine balance to be struck between maintaining a broad church of voters and MPs, yet also preserving enough direction in order to govern effectively. At the moment, the Conservative party are failing to fulfill either of those objectives. The Tories must find an identity and pin themselves to that mast - the past few months have proved that they can no longer claim to be fiscally prudent, staunch supporters of the ‘One Nation’ approach, Libertarian or even somewhat pragmatic. They have instead been an odd amalgamation of a party given direction by daily YouGov polls, yet also one which occasionally decides to take a deeply unpopular stance on a popular issue, willingly painting themselves as the bad guys.
Boris Johnson must look himself in the mirror and work out what his political standing is. There is a myth often perpetuated by the left both in the UK and USA that ‘Conservatism’ is an easily discernible, singular school of thought - this couldn’t be further from the truth. The Conservative party has always found itself drifting between Thatcherism’s libertarian ends through authoritarian means, Disraeli’s One Nation Conservatism and omnipresent orthodox conservatism. Under Cameron and May, One Nation Conservatism was the chosen tact, yet a decade on from the birth of Cameron’s brand of “compassionate conservatism”, Johnson’s administration has devolved into a sticky mess with no discernable ideology. As a PM, he is both a self professed libertarian and One Nation Conservative - a dichotomy that can only be extricated through plain pragmatism - something that nobody would suggest has been a core facet of the Johnson government thus far. Instead, Conservative voters and members, both new and old, have been left with an administration that has seemingly abandoned the North, has no respect for fiscal conservatism and practices the authoritarianism that, for decades, Labour has baselessly accused it of, but now seemingly props up. For months, the party has been haemorrhaging grassroots support, but now it seems that may have infiltrated the party hierarchy.
The sounds coming out of Downing Street this week have been that of a Government in turmoil, but with a PM that is too reliant on image and pomp to fix it. In the last fortnight, there have been rumours of this Government’s most popular figure in Sunak threatening to resign, serious questions posed about influences, with the resignations of Lee Cain and the infamous Dominic Cummings, to equal cries of glee and dismay. Downing Street is not a happy place.
After 10 years of Government, ideological crisis seems a trope of the Conservative Party (with the fall of Thatcher being the prime example) - yet hope is not lost. There seems to be three distinct routes out of this climacteric period for the party. The most likely of these, and one which has been widely rumoured of late, is Johnson leaving his position in the Spring. A leadership election would be a clear opportunity for the party to lay it’s ideological future on the table, something that it couldn’t do in 2019 due to the Brexit debate and a character such as Johnson on the debate stage. Sunak and Raab could argue their One Nation case, Esther McVey could unify the Libertarians, and Gove could retain his widespread presence, yet perpetually unsuccessful self whenever there is a slight hint of power. Clear options mean clear outcomes.
Secondly, it is possible that as the Covid crisis rumbles to a slow stop, this Government may emerge with a fiscally minded, truly Conservative plan for recovery. In times of unprecedented crisis, it is largely unhelpful to remain staunch in one’s self prescribed “isms” - it is far more effective to exercise pragmatic and utilitarian tendencies - it may just be that those are not characteristics that this government is capable of expressing, and when we arrive at the “new normal”, there may be a conscious return to their electoral base.
The final solution is one which is not in the hands of the Conservative Party. It may be that Farage’s return to party politics, as a far more widely popular figure than he has been before, with a Brexit party rebranded as a home for the Libertarian right in the UK, may jolt the Conservative party into action. It may remind the 1922 Committee that lack of direction may not just revive the red wall, it could also result in the loss of lifelong Conservative members to another right wing party with clear and explicit ideological direction - something that Farage has successfully used to change Tory policy in the past.
For months, the Conservative Party has suffered from a lack of direction, character and fundamental values. It is seemingly slipping further and further away from what a truly ‘Conservative’ party should offer - unsure about what it stands for, it instead stands for nothing. There may be solutions on the horizon, but as Starmer slowly moulds the Labour party into a competent opposition not seen for half a decade, Farage eyes a return to the mainstream, and Conservative members and politicians are beginning to look for the lifeboats - a change of course can’t come soon enough.